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December 25, 2016

Best Classical Music for Christmas

When hearing the term "Christmas music" you are perhaps in the first place reminded of the tunes that are piped through muzak systems in shopping malls, restaurants and other public places already from November on - tunes you have heard so often that you really don't want to hear them again. But as Christmas was an important feast within the church year, there is also a great and long tradition of beautiful classical music specially composed for celebrating the season.

[The Annunciation to the Shepherds, by Abraham Hondius, 1663]

Here are my favorite pieces of classical music for Christmas:

1. Thomas Tallis, "Puer natus est nobis"(1554)
Thomas Tallis is considered as one of the greatest composers of choral music in England. The seven-part Christmas Mass "Puer natus est nobis" was written during the reign of the Catholic Mary Tudor who had restored the Roman rite. The elaborate mass is based on the plainchant of the same name. The cumulative effect of the polyphony with seven voices has an almost hypnotic effect. This substantial music must have been written for a special event and scholars think that it was the visit Philip II of Spain made around Christmas Day 1554 to England to marry Queen Mary. There is also a double meaning to the title of the mass, for English Catholics hoped Queen Mary would soon bear a son. Her reign, however, was as cruel as that of her husband Philip II with his Inquisition: in the 5 years Mary was on the throne, she had 280 religious dissenters burned at the stake - so much for the spirit of Christmas. In 1558 - a;ready ill - she died during an influenza epidemic and was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth I, who reversed her policies.

2. Heinrich Schütz, Weihnachtshistorie (1664)
This music was a revelation to me when I heard it for the first time: from the opening sinfonia it is filled to the brim with good will and joyousness. As in Bach's Passions, there is an Evangelist who sings in accompanied recitative and tells the Christmas story, but the work really comes to life through its great lyrical moments. There are eight such interludes, corresponding to moments of direct speech by characters in the story. Each of them is highly individual, from the shepherds to the Three Wise Man and even Herod.

[Nativity scene by Gerard David, 1495]

3. Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Pastorale sur la naissance de N.S. Jésus-Christ (1684)
The French Baroque composer Charpentier wrote various pieces of Christmas music, including a full Mass (Messe de Minuit pour Noël) for Christmas Eve. Charpentier wrote two Pastorals for Christmas - this is the second one (H.483); the other one (H482) is for smaller forces. The Pastoral was popular in France since the 1660s, as a combination of the Bible story with ancient Greek bucolic literature (although the usual love story between shepherd and shepherdess is of course skipped). The Pastorale sur la naissance de N.S. Jésus-Christ consists of seven scenes and follows the story of the shepherds in the fields, the annunciation by the angels and finally the adoration of the child in his straw cradle.

4. Arcangelo Corelli, Concerto No 8 in G Minor "Christmas Concerto" from Twelve Concerti Grossi Op. 6
Several Italian Baroque composers as Vivaldi, Torelli and Manfredini wrote "Christmas concertos" for performance on Christmas Eve, but the very best is the above concerto by Corelli. It has the usual pastoral elements without getting cloying. Instead of the usual fast movement, the concert ends with a Pastoral. In fact, all twelve Op 6 concertos by Corelli are fantastic, so do yourself a favor and listen to them all!

5. Johann Sebastian Bach, Christmas Oratorio (1734)
The Christmas Oratorio consists of six cantatas that were performed consecutively on Christmas Day, Second and Third Christmas Day, New Year's day, the Sunday after New Year and on Epiphany. As I have written in detail about these cantatas in my series about the Bach cantata, I will here only refer to those older posts (starting with the first cantata "Jauchzet, frohlocket" for Christmas Day). Bach's Christmas Oratorio is the best Christmas music ever written and for me Christmas is not complete without listening to this beautiful and joyous music. (Bach wrote more beautiful cantatas for Christmas, these are all discussed in my blog).

[The Adoration of the Shepherds by Guido Reni, 1640]

6. Georg Friedrich Handel, Messiah (1741)
Strictly speaking, Handel's Messiah, although now often played in the Christmas season, is not really Christmas music: it was originally meant for Easter, and the Christmas story only takes up small part of the whole oratorio. But today it has become customary among choral societies to perform the Messiah, just like Bach's Christmas Oratorio, around Christmas. The oratorio starts in Part I with the prophecy by Isaiah, and moves to the annunciation to the shepherds (the only scene based directly on the Bible): the shepherds are introduced by an instrumental Pastorale, the Pifa, which takes its name from the shepherd-bagpipers, or pifferare, who played in the streets of Rome at Christmas time. The music is in swinging time and resembles a lullaby - here we have some real "Christmas music." This part concludes with reflections on the Messiah's deeds. Part II covers the Passion in nine movements including the oratorio's longest movement, an air for alto He was despised. This part is concluded by a scene called "God's Triumph" which culminates in the "Hallelujah Chorus." Part III of the oratorio concentrates on Paul's teaching of the resurrection of the dead and Christ's glorification in heaven.

7. Georg Telemann, Christmas Oratorio "Die Hirten an der Krippe zu Bethlehem" (1759)
This double cantata has been called the "best Christmas cantata after Bach." It is tenderly expressive, imaginative and joyous. The text is by the Berlin poet Ramler, and Telemann's music responds with expressive warmth and irresistible charm. It is work of noble simplicity starting with a harmonization of the Latin carol In dulce jubilo. There are in all twelve movements; of outstanding beauty are the "Shepherd's Song" (with an interesting bassoon part) and the bass aria "Hirten aus den goldnen Zeiten." Trumpets and drums add their luster where necessary in this bright piece of music.

8. Johann Baptist Vanhal, Missa Pastoralis in G Major (1782)
Mass written to performed on Christmas Eve. The pastoral style in 18th c. music is characterized by simplicity and rustic charm; also such devices as a drone bass and a yodeling pattern are employed. Unlike the Baroque number mass, the Missa Pastoralis is cast in six major movements, with a central contrasting section in the long Gloria and Credo movements. There are no arias and set-pieces, but the soloists are employed to delineate new ideas. The use of pastoral elements is sophisticated and effective, promoting a coherent musical unity for the whole Mass cycle. And the melodies are simply very beautiful, too.

9. Joseph Leopold Eybler, Christmas Oratorio "Die Hirten bei der Krippe zu Bethlehem" (1794)
Eybler was a pupil of Albrechstberger and a contemporary of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Besides chamber music works, he mainly wrote religious music. This oratorio has the same title as the one by Telemann, but the text used is a different one and it is longer: there are eighteen movements. The basic mood is cheerful and there are various delightful musical pictures. There are two divisions; at the center of each stands a meditative quartet. Arias placing high demands on the singer prepare for the concluding chorus in each part. The concluding chorus of angels in Part One is a gentle siciliano; the concluding chorus of Part Two has strong dynamic contrasts and ends with a finely crafted fugue.

[Czech nativity scene]

10. Jakub Jan Ryba, Czech Christmas Mass (1796)
This is delicious folksy music, telling the Christmas story in a rural Bohemian setting, in Czech, and that all in the frame of a Mass. The music contains characteristic short melodic motifs and colorful rhythms inspired by Czech folk music. Because of its folk character and simplicity, it was excluded from the Catholic liturgy, but it iwa nonetheless often performed. The mass consists of nine parts. The opening part (Kyrie) begins with a popular verse "Hey Master, get up quickly," with a young shepherd waking his master. The Gloria celebrates the birth of Christ; in the Graduale shepherds assemble people from all lands for a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, where the visitors finally plead with Christ for the protection of all people.

11. Hector Berlioz: L'enfance du Christ (1853–4)
L'enfance du Christ is an oratorio by the French composer Hector Berlioz, based on the holy family's flight into Egypt. Berlioz wrote his own words for the piece. Berlioz described L'enfance as a "sacred trilogy." The first of its three sections depicts King Herod ordering the massacre of all newborn children in Judea; angels warn Joseph and Mary to flee and save their child. The greatest aria of this part is the one by Herod, expressing his inner despair as he is tormented by a recurring dream of a child who will overthrow him. Herod is accompanied by trombones just as Méphistophélès was in The Damnation of Faust. The second part shows Joseph and Mary setting out for Egypt with the baby Jesus. Here we have the most famous part of the oratorio, L'adieu des bergers ("The shepherds' farewell"), which is often performed separately. The final section portrays their arrival in the Egyptian town of Sais where they are given refuge by a family of Ishmaelites. The work concludes with a serene movement for tenor and choir.

[Cornelis Massijs - Arrival of the Holy Family in Bethlehem, 1543]

12. Camille Saint-Saëns: Oratorio de Noël (1858)
Saint-Saens' Christmas Oratorio is somewhere between a cantata and an oratorio: the size is compact, but the structure is that of the larger oratorio. Most of the work is lyrical and contemplative in character. Saint-Saens wrote this work when he was only 23. The work is in ten movements, a prelude followed by nine vocal numbers. The pastoral prelude, for strings and organ, is in "the style of Bach," harkening back to Bach's Christmas Oratorio, evoking images of shepherds tending their flocks in the fields. In the other movements, the vocal soloists take turns representing different characters from the Christmas story. In the Ninth movement the melody from the prelude comes back. The final movement is a hymn of praise of all creation in the presence of God. Saint-Saëns' study of the choral music of Bach, Handel, Mozart and Berlioz had a great influence on the work.

13. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker (1892)
This ballet, based on a story by the German author E.T.A. Hoffman, is primarily performed during the Christmas season, as the story is set on Christmas Day and features a Christmas party and the exchange of presents - the protagonist Clara receives as a wooden nutcracker carved in the shape of an ugly little man from her godfather, the councilman and magician Drosselmeier. In her dream this nutcracker will come alive as a handsome prince and lead her to his fairyland. I watched this ballet yesterday again after a long time and must say that it very well captures the Christmas atmosphere (or perhaps our idea of the ideal Christmas atmosphere has been influenced by this ballet). It is very popular, major American ballet companies are said to generate around 40 percent of their annual ticket revenues from performances of The Nutcracker alone.

[Adoration of the Shepherds, by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622]

14. Benjamin Britten, A Ceremony of Carols (1942)
A choral piece scored for three-part treble chorus, solo voices, and harp (no orchestra!), written for Christmas. There are eleven movements; the texts are in Middle English. The piece was written in 1942 while Britten was at sea, going from the United States to England. Originally conceived as a series of unrelated songs, it was later unified into one piece with the framing processional and recessional chant in unison based on the Gregorian antiphon "Hodie Christus natus est," heard at the beginning and the end. The first movement is sung by the sopranos alone. The second movement is an upbeat and festive piece intended to welcome the audience as guests coming to celebrate the holiday. The next few songs are about the child Jesus. The 7th movement consists of a harp solo, creating a sense of angelic bliss. Movement 8 has an interesting echoing effect. After a Deo Gracias, the last movement mirrors the first one, this time by exiting the stage.

15. Arthur Honegger, Une Cantate de Noël (1953)
This was the last work by Swiss composer Honegger. The cantata, for mixed chorus, baritone solo, children's chorus, organ and orchestra, is in three parts. The first part describes the chaos in the world before the advent of the Messiah ("De Profundis"). The second part consists of a potpourri of melodies of famous Christmas songs, as Silent Night, etc. The third part is a solemn chorus (Laudate Dominum) ending in a finale by the orchestra which again takes up the dissonances from the beginning of the cantata.

16. John Adams, El Niño (2000)
A two-hour opera-oratorio for five soloists, large adult chorus, children's chorus and sizable orchestra by the American Minimal composer John Adams. It retells the Christmas story, with the first half focusing on Mary's thoughts before giving birth in Bethlehem, and the second half covering the aftermath of the birth, Herod's slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and the early life of Jesus. But Adams presents his material in an unconventional way. Mostly avoiding Biblical texts, he sets the Magnificat, extracts from the Apocrypha, a medieval carol, a mystery play, and several poems by Latin American women authors. His switch to a female, non-European perspective brings unusual nuances to the familiar story. Another aspect is that Adams mirrors the slaughter of the Innocents by Herod (see No 10, Berlioz, above) with an account of a massacre in Mexico City in 1968. A nativity with a sharp contemporary twist.